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Waiting In The Desert
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Waiting In The Desert
The caravan pulled off the interstate on a county road. Soon they abandoned that as well in favor of a dirt road. They drove on it for a bumpy half hour, and then they stopped.
John Stavros got out of his SUV and surveyed the area. As Mike had promised, they were on top of a hill. It was rather flat, and the downward slope of the surroundings was barely perceptible. Nonetheless, the location offered a panoramic view unmatched in the Mojave Desert. Excellent seats for the grand finale.
Stavros looked up at the night sky. A sickle moon hung low, and myriads of stars dotted the heavens, so close together that they formed an almost uniform curtain of pale light.
His target had just appeared over the eastern horizon. Already it was the brightest star on the firmament.
The discovery of asteroid 1376127YH had caused quite a stir in the astronomic community. Its calculated trajectory appeared to pass alarmingly close to Earth. The media quickly picked up on the story, feeding the public’s fears. The roughly cylindrical object was twenty miles long and ten miles in diameter. It was big enough that, in the event that it hit the planet, it would wipe out every living being with the possible exception of bacteria deep in the soil.
Then official sources from most developed countries announced that Earth would be spared. Yes, the asteroid would come really close to hitting the planet. But its orbit had been precisely determined and they were happy to report that there was no danger. The masses breathed a collective sigh of relief and the media quickly returned to its usual stories about terrorism, the extremely dirty election campaign and the latest Hollywood marriage or divorce. After all, the smart boys and girls with the fancy gadgets, Doppler lasers and satellites could not be wrong.
The university where John Stavros was teaching astrophysics also had smart men and women on its payroll, and it possessed some good telescopes too. Not as good as those of NASA or Space Command, but good enough to tell the real story. The asteroid would not miss. They tried to contact the government agencies and let them know of their error. Their warnings fell on deaf ears. John knew scientists from other private institutions or academia who had also become aware of the apparent miscalculation and had tried to make their voices heard, but the government had refused to acknowledge them. The media, ashamed of the panic it had almost created, also dismissed their warnings.
And Cassandras quickly realized the grim truth. The world leaders knew the asteroid would hit Earth. They also knew there was nothing they could do to prevent it. Technology to detonate nuclear bombs close enough to the asteroid to deflect its trajectory did not yet exist. The most powerful intercontinental ballistic missiles could barely rise out of the atmosphere, and when the asteroid was that close to Earth there was no way to push it away. And even if all the nuclear bombs in the world were detonated on its surface, the rock would not break up. The most nukes could do was dig shallow craters in its surface.
The world leaders had decided to give humankind the gift of ignorance. During its last weeks, civilization was spared of mass panic, riots, or worldwide depression.
Knowing there was no hope for survival, John and his colleagues had decided to at least watch their demise in style, apart from the unsuspecting world. Most of the faculty in the astronomy department, and a good number of students too, had driven together deep into the desert. Those who were married had brought spouses and kids along.
They walked a few hundred feet away from their cars and set up camp. A very short-lived camp, John thought.
The children were merrily chasing each other, innocently believing they were on a field trip to watch the big star pass by. They were confused when parents would from time to time come in their midst, grab their offspring for a few moments and smother him or her at their breast, chocking back tears.
John Stavros didn’t have any family. Currently he thought of it as a blessing. He raised his gaze again. The star had risen in the sky, and it had also gotten brighter. His watch showed three hours left till impact.
Wanting to get a closer look at the asteroid, he approached Mike Chalmers. The older man, a bachelor like John, was peering through a huge pair of binoculars. Lighting a cigarette, John asked: “Studying your executioner? Can I borrow those?”
Mike turned with a grim smile: “That’s the most I can do.” He handed John the binoculars. “Knock yourself out.”
John peered at the asteroid. Through the binoculars, it looked about as big as the moon seen with the naked eye. He could easily make out the potato outline and the jagged edges. The surface was pockmarked with craters made by smaller objects that had hit the asteroid during its billion -year journey, which would soon end. Tonight 1376127YH will be the one making the crater.
He returned the binoculars to Mike: “Do you hear the animals? In all the nights I spent in the desert, I have never heard such ruckus.”
“They can feel it coming.” As if to underscore his words, a pack of coyotes nearby howled in unison. “They feel earthquakes before they happen too. I wonder if they know they won’t make it through this one. Can I have a cigarette? If there ever was a good time to restart smoking…”
They smoked together in silence, both deep in their thoughts. John tried to grasp the concept of his own death, which would occur in only a couple of hours, but failed. At the same time, he knew exactly how it would happen. The asteroid would strike somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. At the place of impact, immense quantities of water would vaporize instantaneously. Waves that made the tsunamis look like ripples in a pond would soon assault the shores of Asia and the Americas, wiping away everything for thousands of miles in their path. Earthquakes would resonate through the entire crust of the planet, and active and extinct volcanoes would spill their lava with fury. They would add their clouds of ash to the material ejected from the point of impact, covering the sun, poisoning the air and killing, within a year, every creature and plant that had survived the collision.
John knew that the western United States, from California to Washington, would be swept by a tidal wave thousands of feet tall. Within hours, similar waves will hit the Eastern shores of the continent. People high in the Rockies might survive for a while. Whatever kind of existence that would be, he will not know. He and most of his fellow astronomers had decided not to attempt to prolong their lives by engaging in a desperate fight for survival on a dying planet. This way, at least it will be quick and probably painless.
He checked his watch again, then the skies. Only an hour left. The asteroid was now directly overhead. It was so close its reflected light obscured the stars and bathed the landscape in a faint white glow not unlike that of the full moon.
He looked around. Mike had resumed his observations, muttering under his breath. Most of the children had fallen asleep in their sleeping bags. Their parents, holding hands, sat on blankets next to them, talking quietly, holding each other and sometimes caressing the children’s foreheads. In a few places, tents had been erected, where young couples were spending the last hours together as pleasantly as possible. Stavros felt a pang of envy. Loneliness overwhelmed him. Nobody to hold him in his last moments…he let himself fall on the ground and sobbed for what seemed like hours.
Ashamed, John sat up and cautiously looked around. Nobody had noticed him. Many were looking at the asteroid. He straightened and checked his watch again. Half an hour left. He started shaking, but through great effort he maintained his composure. He raised his gaze and turned it to the west. There it was, brighter than ever. Was he detecting an undulating wake, burning material peeling off as the asteroid entered the atmosphere?
No, it was still too early for that. He got on his feet. He noticed that a lot of people were standing now, all gazing west. Parents were holding their sleeping children in their arms. Nobody was moving. The white, unnaturally strong light coming from the west made their faces look ghostly pale. And, John thought, ghosts they were indeed, every single one of them. Still alive, but already dead.
Then he became aware of the eerie silence. Nobody was talking, not even the desert, which had a billion voices it could use. Every creature lay in waiting.
The asteroid was just now encountering the outer fringes of the Earth’s atmosphere. Its profile became wavy, as entry heat enveloped it in a mantle of plasma. Its brightness increased tenfold, and a trail of burning material marked the meteor’s path through the atmosphere. Lower and lower it got, until it disappeared behind the horizon. Less than a second later, a distant flash marked the encounter between 1376127YH and Terra.
After the momentary brightness, the night suddenly seemed much darker. John tensed. It won’t be long now. He started counting the seconds. When he heard the rumble, deeper than anything he had heard before, the scientist in him calculated the distance to the point of impact. Another part of him was laughing sardonically. Like it made any difference how far it was.
He braced himself, and soon enough the expected shakes came. Their amplitude was so great he was knocked down right away. The earthquake continued for what seemed like a long time. He lay on his stomach, looking around. Everything appeared to dance in front of his eyes. In places, long and wide cracks suddenly appeared in the dry ground.
When the earthquake subsided, he could hear a few cries. Wounded. It didn’t make any difference; they were all about to die anyway. He looked towards the west. He couldn’t see anything yet. But he knew it was coming, and excitement got hold of him, like he was in for a treat, something special.
First, John felt the wind. It smelled salty, just like a sea breeze. But this breeze got stronger and stronger, howling and raising curtains of sand in the distance. And, towering over the sandstorm, a wall darker than the night was advancing towards the east. Although he knew these were his last moments on Earth, John didn’t care anymore. The view was majestic. The wave came closer and closer, cascades of water falling from its foamy crest, then getting swept back under the mountain of liquid, mud and debris. The noise became deafening. Mouth wide open, feet firmly planted on the ground, John looked up at the giant, laughing, extending his hands to meet him. He felt a club hitting him in the stomach, the head, sweeping him off his feet.
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© 2004 Mihai Pruna
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